The last time Baylor headed into a game as the state's highest-ranked college football team, the face of the Bears' program could not read books, much less opposing defenses.
But quarterback Robert Griffin III, the team's Heisman Trophy candidate, handles both tasks comfortably these days. That is a major reason why No. 20 Baylor (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) heads into Saturday's showdown against No. 21 Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1) as Texas' top-ranked team in this week's Associated Press poll.
Until this week, the Bears last received that distinction on Oct. 14, 1991, when Griffin was a toddler, living on a military base in Japan and awaiting his second birthday.
"It's been a while. But it means something," Griffin said. "It means we're doing what we came here to do. Obviously, we're not done and we're not satisfied.... You always aim for the sky and sometimes you reach the stars. I think we can reach the stars."
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In Griffin's vernacular, that means a Big 12 championship. To remain a front-runner in the race, the Bears must prevail at Kyle Field, a venue where Baylor players expect a spirited greeting in light of off-field developments in conference realignment.
Baylor President Ken Starr's legal strategy delayed A&M's planned move to the Southeastern Conference for almost three weeks in September, creating angst among both fan bases heading into Saturday's 108th -- and final -- scheduled meeting between football rivals that first crossed paths in 1899.
While A&M's move remained in limbo, a maroon billboard with white lettering surfaced in Waco. Its message: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's conference deal." College Station merchants began selling a popular T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: "It sucks to BU." The BU appeared in Baylor school colors.
In Waco, one retailer fired back with an A&M-related T-shirt that said: "If you needed money, why didn't you come to us?"
Other more colorful exchanges, inappropriate for family newspapers, have surfaced on fan-generated websites and chat rooms. The bottom line, said Baylor running back Terrance Ganaway, is that the Bears are "most definitely" preparing for the ultimate in hostile environments.
"We're both mad at each other's football team for something the football teams haven't done," Ganaway said. "Everything with the administrators is beyond our reach. But, nevertheless, this game is going to be a fight.... There are people saying, 'You've got to beat the Aggies.'"
Ganaway, who ranks third among Big 12 players in rushing (107.2 yards per game, six touchdowns), said the key will be tuning out the impassioned pleas of fans and fellow students and remaining focused. Ganaway said he never saw the A&M-colored billboard that surfaced in Waco, but he hopes teammates will be riled up by its presence.
Griffin said he saw it and was indifferent to its message.
"It's satire," Griffin said. "You try not to get mad about those little things. But the fans definitely will blow the game up.... As far as the personal vendettas and all that, because they're leaving and they tried to destroy the Big 12, we're not focused on that. We'll let our fans do the talking there and we'll go out and try and help them on the field."
Unlike in most recent seasons, the Bears have the credentials to earn the school's first victory in College Station since 1984. Baylor ranks ahead of A&M in eight of 10 offensive and defensive statistical categories tracked by the NCAA, including scoring offense (47.6 average to 39.0) and total defense (374 yards per game to 424.4).
"I think we've turned the program around," said receiver Kendall Wright, a senior who leads the Big 12 in receiving yards (690) and touchdown catches (eight). "It's a fun week... We get to play the Aggies before they go to the SEC. So we're looking forward to beating them."
Even if Griffin, who is working on his master's degree in communications with an eye toward law school, has yet to familiarize himself with the phrase tortious interference. Griffin drew a blank when asked about the term, then laughed when told it would have been the basis of Starr's potential lawsuit against A&M that never unfolded.
"I didn't know that," Griffin said, smiling.
Lots of people wearing maroon Saturday in Kyle Field would recognize the term. But the guys in green will arrive with the higher-ranked football team, a twist unseen for 20 years in the A&M-Baylor rivalry.
"It's a good feeling, but we can't get too happy," Ganaway said.
The Bears, after all, will be in the vocal minority during what projects to be the most emotional of 108 meetings in series history.
Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760